Better Beef Browning & Super Secret Ground Beef Chili

By: Jennifer Fisher, The Fit Fork

It’s Super Bowl time and most of us have one thing on the mind — a big, pot of spicy, rich and super-beefy chili. Not just any ole chili, but “the best” chili in town heaped up with steaming rice or tortilla chips and loaded with all of the requisite tasty toppings. I’ve tried my hand at many chili recipes — my Southwestern Steak Chili  has been known to spur a stampeded to the kitchen and the Texas Beef Council has a drool-worthy collection, including Smokey Chipotle Chili and Texas-Style Chili.

However, to be kind to my post-holiday pocketbook and busy schedule, I was in the mood for a ground beef chili rather than busting the food budget and then breaking down a roast into bite-sized chunks (all though, so worth it if you have the means).  After flipping through some cookbooks for inspiration and going off past experience, my recipe for Super-Secret Ground Beef Chili was coming together in my mind — but my only concern was the ground beef might turn out dry and the beefy taste might get lost in the explosion of spices.

But lucky for me (and you), I stumbled on a way achieve “better browning through science” in Cooks Illustrated magazine.  They suggested briefly soaking meat in a solution of baking soda and water to raise the pH on the meat’s surface, making the proteins better able to attract more water and hold onto it during cooking. It was also noted that the high pH level should speed up the desirable Maillard reaction (basically, the precursor to caramelization).  According to the magazine’s food experimenters, the baking soda treatment will definitely keep the meat tender and juicy when cooked. I’d heard my own dad make mention of this “secret” treatment with steaks, but it also sounded like a genius way to optimize the taste and texture of ground beef.

Ground Beef browned traditionally (2)

Ground Chuck “browned” traditionally with expelled liquids.

The magazine explained, and I nodded my head in revelation, that typically when ground beef is cooked in a skillet, so much water and liquid is expelled that the beef crumbles just end up steaming in their own juices and very little browning transpires.  When cooked to the point of most water evaporating, the batch of beef will be unpleasantly overdone. However, by gently tossing a baking soda solution with the meat (about ¾ teaspoon baking soda to 2 tablespoons water for 2lbs of grind) and letting sit for 15 to 20 minutes before cooking, beef loses less liquid, browns faster and tastes better.

I tried it myself with 80/20 Chuck Ground Beef and I must say, I was impressed! The ground beef cooked “as-is” was almost immediately sitting in a pool of liquids (as you can see from the picture on the left) and when taste-tested seemed a little rubbery and bland.

Ground Beef browned with baking soda (2)

Ground chuck treated with baking soda solution before browning with expelled liquids.

However, the baking soda treated beef immediately started to brown in the pot. And, while there was still a fair deal of liquid released, it was discernably less so than the previous batch (Cook’s illustrated said about 10% less liquid, I felt like maybe even a little more).  The biggest difference I noted though was the taste — the baking-soda treated batch had that a deeper, richer caramelized flavor and was definitely juicier. In fact, it was so tasty; I was worried I would “sample” my way through the whole pile before I made the actual chili!

So, my final recommendation on this “baking soda treatment” is definitely try it and see what you think! It does take little bit of pre-planning because you have to let the solution sit on the meat for 20 minutes, but you can have that going while you prep the other ingredients.

So, here is my Super-Secret Ground Beef Chili recipe, — every spoon is a mouthful of meaty goodness. It’s rich and spicy, without being too heavy or too “hot” for kids — I think you’ll really like it. But, feel free to use this baking soda technique with any beef chili recipe!